When the U.S. Senate last Friday refused to renew the liberticidal Patriot Act — with its provisions for spying on Americans’ use of libraries and the Internet, among other Constitution- shredding activities — it was in part because that morning’s New York Times had revealed how Bush and his White House had committed a major crime.
By ordering the National Security Agency (a massive spying shop so secretive that in Washington its initials are said to stand for “No Such Agency”) to wiretap and eavesdrop on thousands of American citizens without a court order, Bush committed actions specifically forbidden by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Passed in 1978 after the Senate’s Church Committee documented in detail the Nixon administration’s widespread use of U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on the anti-Vietnam war movement and other political dissidents, FISA “expressly made it a crime for government officials ‘acting under color of law’ to engage in electronic eavesdropping ‘other than pursuant to statute,’” as Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, told the Washington Post last weekend. And the FISA statute required authorization from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in each case to make such domestic spying legal. Bush and his NSA sought no such authorization before invading American citizens’ right to privacy — a blatant flouting of the law that made both wavering, pro-war Democrats and libertarian Republicans mad enough to vote against extending the hideous Patriot Act, which thankfully will now expire at the end of the year (unless a cave-in compromise three-month extension proposed by Vermont Democratic Senator Pat Leahy passes).
Bush not only acknowledged, and defended, this illegal eavesdropping in a Saturday radio address, he went further in a Monday morning press conference, saying he’d “suggested” it. But as Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold — who, together with conservative Idaho Republican Larry Craig, led the filibuster that defeated the Patriot Act’s renewal — said this weekend, “This is not how our democratic system of government works — the president does not get to pick and choose which laws he wants to follow.”
Bush had plenty of bipartisan help from Democratic co-conspirators in keeping knowledge of this illegal spying from reaching the American public. It began in November 2001, in the wake of 9/11, and — from the very first briefing for congressional leaders by Dick Cheney until today — Democrats on the Senate and House Intelligence committees were told about it. Those witting and complicit in hiding the crime included Democratic Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, former chairman and later ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, former ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. They knew it was a crime — Rockefeller, for example, warned the administration against it — and yet did not make it public. They were frightened by polls showing security hysteria at its height.
Worse, The New York Times itself was part of the cover-up. When it broke its scoop last Friday, The Times in its article admitted that, “After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.” In other words, The Times sat on its story until after the 2004 presidential elections, when American voters might have been able to stop this criminal conduct by voting out the criminal. Not content with employing Judith Miller as the megaphone for relaying the Bush administration’s lies about Saddam’s having weapons of mass destruction, The Times again proved its servility to power by not telling its readers it knew of criminal spying on them for an entire year, until the election cycle was long past. And the paper says it is concealing yet more information — The Times should change its masthead slogan to read, “All the News That’s Fit To Print — If It’s Okay With the White House.” Yet this aspect of The Times‘ story has gone largely unremarked in the mass media.
Bush’s excuses for the illegal eavesdropping are indeed risible. The Times didn’t mention it, but of 19,000 requests for eavesdropping the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court has received from the executive branch, only five have ever been refused.
Bush claimed again on Monday that his flagrant flouting of the FISA law was necessary because fighting “terrorists” needed to be done “quickly.” Yet, as The Times reported, the secret court can grant approval for wiretaps “within hours.” And the excuse that this illegal subversion of FISA was necessary to fight 9/11-style terrorism is equally laughable. As the ACLU pointed out in a study of FISA two years ago, “Although the Patriot Act was rushed into law just weeks after 9/11, Congress’s later investigation into the attacks did not find that the former limits on FISA powers had contributed to the government’s failure to prevent the attacks.”
In a Zogby poll released November 4, when Americans were asked if they agreed that, “If President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment,” they said yes, by 53 percent to 42 percent. It is therefore not simply an extremist raving to suggest that impeachment of George Bush should be put on the table.
Remember that, in the impeachment proceedings of Richard Nixon, Article 2 of the three Articles of Impeachment dealt with illegal wiretapping of Americans. It said that Nixon committed a crime “by directing or authorizing [intelligence] agencies or personnel to conduct or continue electronic surveillance or other investigations for purposes unrelated to national security, the enforcement of laws, or any other lawful function of his office.”
There was no national security justification for Bush’s illegal wiretaps. His eavesdropping was indisputably in contravention of the law of the land. And when a president commits a crime in violation of his oath of office swearing to uphold the law, it is, as Georgia Democratic Congressman John Lewis said Monday, time to impeach.